Moral hazard and photography

In another life, I think I would have been an economist. I have already blogged about why I say that and what fascinates me about economics. With that in mind, I have been thinking a lot about one of my favorite economics terms, moral hazard. I recently pondered how it applies to two of my favorite pursuits, photography and motorcycle riding.

Searching the web I found various definitions of moral hazard, including:

Moral hazard occurs when a party insulated from risk behaves differently than it would behave if it were fully exposed to the risk. The classic example is in the insurance industry, where coverage against a loss might increase the risk-taking behavior of the insured. (Wikipedia.)

For example, a plan for a government to bail out delinquent mortgages has the moral hazard that it will encourage mortgage holders to refrain from making their home payment. (The Free Dictionary’s Financial Dictionary.)

Moral hazard means that people with insurance may take greater risks than they would do without it because they know they are protected, so the insurer may get more claims than it bargained for. (The Incidental Economist)

I would suggest a slightly more open-ended definition that moves the issue out of the realm of economics and into every day life. I prefer something like “…anything that protects you from the consequences of an error, subtly encourages more risky behavior that inevitably gets you closer to making that same error, but with more dramatic consequences.”

While most people may not know the term, moral hazard, they understand the concept. A fascinating article in the sports section of The New York Times recently explored how most female college lacrosse players have made it clear that they have no interest in wearing the safety helmets that male players are required to wear. The widely, but not universally held consensus is that if women had more protection in the form of mandatory headgear, they would play rougher, resulting in more severe injuries. As one woman told the New York Times, “Wearing a helmet would just bring us closer to football and hockey.”

Do college female lacrosse players feel this way by and large because they understand the idea of moral hazard. Hard to say! But they have fought calls for head protection in women’s lacrosse so they understand the issue. They know when to go against conventional wisdom, which would automatically argue that more protection is better. Hockey is said to have become considerably more violent with the adoption of helmets. The recent controversy about concussions in football show us the long-term consequence of decisions made years ago, promoting helmets, that inadvertently encouraged more vicious contact on football fields across the country.

Anti-lock brakes and skid control on cars are other examples of safety technologies that may inadvertently encourage moral hazard. The idea behind both technologies is to control traction in difficult driving situations and prevent automobile accidents. Anecdotal evidence (and some empirical research) suggest that some drivers take more risks when driving in situations with limited traction because they believe that anti-lock brakes and skid control technology will ”save” them.

So what does this have to do with photography? Digital imaging technology in general and PhotoShop in particular are the photographic equivalent of anti-lock brakes and skid control. They encourage moral hazard among photographers, assuming you use my definition “…anything that protects you from the consequences of an error, subtly encourages more risky behavior that inevitably gets you closer to making that same error, but with more dramatic consequences.” The technical discipline that was required when working with film has been replaced by a casual disregard for the same since PhotoShop (and other imaging programs) can always be used to “save” an image.

On an obvious level, errors in photography rarely have life or death consequences. On the other hand such “errors” in photography are contributing our collective cultural disregard for serious photography.
What mystifies me is how our collective cultural can and does value certain forms of mastery as shown by our obsession with fine foods, cooking shows and master chefs.

This disdain for mastery in photography started, in my mind, with the camera and film manufacturers, who, going back as far as George Eastman (of Kodak fame,) presented photography as an ever-easier process with marketing phrases like “you push the button and we do the rest.” This movement away from expertise has little to do with the arrival of auto focus technology or auto exposure technology on most cameras. Those technologies, in theory, work to make the best image technologically possible. Mostly it has to do with the idea that like in so many parts of modern life, we have become ever more removed from “…the consequences of an error…” This is ever more true in automobile driving and in photography among other pursuits.

So what does this have to do with motorcycle riding? When I was out last week on the first ride of the season, I was extra attuned to my every move. This is partly because there was still ice on the ground and also because I had not been on the motorcycle for about five months. Mostly though, I realized that motorcycle riding requires mastery, a skill and concentration that I love practicing. As far as I know there are few, if any technologies in motorcycling that encourage riders like me to indulge in moral hazard. And to me, that is a good thing.

2 responses to “Moral hazard and photography”

  1. maybe you get out of photographer jail on bail by agreeing to photography mastery rehab.

    Where you sign up for a 12 step process in which you admit your sloppiness about fundamentals of photography and comment to “getting it right in the camera” first (paying attention to exposure, composition, light, focus and dof when shooting). Each meeting at rehab starts with “Hello I’m …… and I’m a sloppy photographer 😉

    After completing the rehab program you remain on probation for an extended time until judges Ansel Adams and Edward Weston pronounce you rehabilitated and set sail on the path photographic mastery.

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